Metalworking has traditionally been slower than other sectors in its uptake of automation technologies. John Young, APAC director at automation parts supplier, EU Automation, looks at three key areas where current and future trends suggest metalworking is increasingly ready to shake off this reputation.
Automation and 3D printing
Not so long ago, 3D printing was mostly associated with rapid prototyping. In more recent years we have seen significant investment in additive manufacturing in the metalworking industry, driven by the demands of the defence and aerospace sectors.
This trend is set to increase. As was reported in last month’s edition of APMEN, recent research has estimated that the global market for 3D printing in metalworking is set to reach $5.51 billion by 2027. With a predicted CAGR of 31.7 percent, the Asia Pacific region can anticipate higher growth rates than any other region in the world.
The pros and cons of this disruptive innovation are relative to the application at hand, but as the technology constantly improves, its benefits are increasing. The advantages include the ability to manufacture more complex and lightweight parts and offer the design flexibility that is necessary to compete in today’s highly competitive markets.
The drawbacks include the high costs and lower surface quality. However, the cost barrier is being lowered and combining both additive and subtractive machining, sometimes known as hybrid manufacturing, can help manufacturers exploit the unique benefits of 3D printing and CNC machining. We can already see the development of hybrid machines that combine these two contrasting processes into a single footprint.
3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) is itself a form of automation. If we are talking about automation in AM though, we typically mean something more. Experts in this area are now focused on the integration of 3D printers into fully automated production lines with the assistance of the latest AM hardware and software.
A common trend is for the automation of post-processing functions and systems such as powder removal, part finishing and part cleaning. Automating these parts of the production process is allowing some manufacturers to achieve higher levels of productivity and repeatability.
If advocates of greater automation in 3D printing are correct, it is automation that will lead to a higher rate of adoption of AM across the metalworking industry. More automation, it is argued, will bring down the cost per part and lower the reliance on manual labour, making AM a more competitive mode of manufacturing to more companies in the metalworking industry.
Robots and Cobots
The metalworking industry is witnessing the increasing use of robots as the cost of the technology gradually diminishes and as manufacturers begin to see automation as a solution to skills shortages. The adoption curve is notably higher for cobots. In contrast to larger industrial robots that are built to act autonomously and are typically housed behind safety cages, cobots are designed to operate safely alongside human workers.
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